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THINKING DIALECTICALLY ABOUT INTERCULTURAL RELATIONSHIPS

Researcher Leslie A. Baxter (1993) suggests that a dialectical model explains the dynamics of relationships. She and her
colleagues have identified several basic dia- lectical tensions in relationships: noveltypredictability, autonomyconnection,
and opennessclosedness (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). That is, we can simulta- neously feel the need to be both connected
and autonomous in relationships with our parents, friends, and romantic partners. We may also feel the need simultane- ously
for novelty and predictability and the need to be open and yet private in our relationships.

Personal-Contextual Dialectic
Intercultural relationships are both personal and contextual. There are aspects of the relationship that are personal
consistent from situation to situation but context also plays a huge role in how intercultural relationships are developed and maintained. For example, are there contexts where you would be more or less comfortable in an intercultural
relationship? How do your family, your church, your religious friends react to intercultural relationships? Studies have
shown that the number-one predictor of whether individuals engage in intercultural dating is the diversity of their social
networksthat is, if you are in contexts where there is diversity, it is more likely you will meet and go out with people
from other ethnic/racial backgrounds (Clark-Ibanez & Felmlee,
2004).
Even who we are attracted to is largely determined by cultural contexts. Notions of attractiveness are defined for
us and reinforced by what we see on TV and film and in other media. The standard of beauty for American women seems
to be white and blond, and at least one study states that 90% of models in U.S. womens magazines are white (Frith, Shaw,
& Cheng, 2005). This trend was noticed by one of our students:
I stopped by an airport newsstand and was struck by the similarity of the covers on the popular magazines displayed there
(e.g., Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Self). Out of the 24 magazines, 19 had a white model with long blond hair on their covers! Two
magazines had Caucasian brunettes, and two covers featured nonwhite women (one was Jennifer Lopez, the other Oprah Winfrey
on the cover of her O magazine).
At the same time, Asian and Asian American women are often portrayed in popular culture texts and discourses as
erotic, exotic, and submissive and thus highly attractive to white men (Root, 2001). One young man, Shane, described his
attraction to Asian women:
I think theyre so exotic. Really, what concerns me about the girl is the eyes, and Asian women have beautiful eyes, the form and
the shape of them. Its a plus for me. I had another Asian girlfriend before. And I like their skin color, tannish, not just white, white,
white. A girl with color. Its just different; its more sexual, its not just like plain Jane. (Talking About Race, 2000, p. 59)
This kind of attraction has spawned an entire business of mail-order Asian brides. Communication scholar Rona
Halualani (1995) analyzed how these businesses perpetuate and market stereotypes of Asian women as idealized
wivessubmissive, sexual, and eager to please men. In contrast, Asian men are often stereotyped in ways that downplay
their masculinity (Eng, 2001).
Of course, we all want to believe we choose our relational partners outside of the influences of these social
discourses. We all want to believe we fell in love with this man or this woman because he or she is special. Yet if we
want to understand the problems and dynamics of intercultural communication, we must be attentive to these large
contextual discourses about racial and sexual identities and realize there is the tension of both personal and contextual
forces in any intercultural relationship.

Differences-Similarities Dialectic
According to the similarity principle, we tend to be attracted to people who we perceive to be similar to
ourselves, and evidence indicates that this principle works for many cultural groups (Osbeck & Moghaddam, 1997; Tan &
Singh,1995). Finding people who agree with our beliefs confirms our own beliefs and provides us with cognitive
consistency (if we like ourselves, well probably like others who share our views). In fact, we may explicitly seek partners
who hold the same beliefs and values because of deep spiritual, moral, or religious convic- tion. In intercultural relationships,
in contrast, we may be attracted to persons who are somewhat different from ourselves. The differences that form the basis
of attraction may involve personality traits and may contribute to complemen- tarity or balance in the relationship. An
introverted individual may seek a more outgoing partner, or a spendthrift may be attracted to an individual who is more
careful with money. Some individuals are attracted to people simply because they have a different cultural background.
Intercultural relationships present intriguing opportunities to experience new ways of living in and looking at the world.
Most of us seek a balance between novelty and predictability in our rela- tionships. Research shows that the most
successful relationships have a balance of differences and similarities (Luo & Klohnen, 2005). In intercultural relationships especially, it is important to consider differences and similarities at the same time. Tamie, a student from
Japan, explains how this dialectic works in her relationship with her roommate/friend Hong-Ju, a Korean graduate
student:
We are both women and about the same age30. Both of us are pursuing a Ph.D. degree and aspire to become successful professional
scholars and educators. When we cook in our apartment, there are several common foods (e.g., rice, dried seaweed) while our eating
styles may be different (e.g., Hong-Jus cooking tends to include more spicy food than mine). We also share some common cultural values
(e.g., importance of respect for elders). Yet Hong-Ju is married (a long-distance marriage), and I am single. Finally, we both consider
ourselves as not so typical Korean or Japanese women. Hong-Jus long-distance marriage and my staying single even in my 30s are
usually considered as nontraditional in our respective countries. Eventually, this nontraditionalness creates in both of us a shared and
proud sense of identity and bond.

Cultural-Individual Dialectic

Communication in intercultural relationships is both cultural and individual, that is, idiosyncratic. We have
described various cultural differences that exist in value orientations, in both nonverbal and verbal communication.
Although we have provided some generalizations about how various cultural groups dif- fer, it is important to remember
that communication is both cultural and indi- vidual. Tamie describes how she deals with this cultural-individual dialectic
in her classroom teaching:
I have become very aware of cultural differences between U.S. classrooms and Japanese classrooms. In terms of my teaching
style, I have noticed myself deliver- ing the course content in a more linear, straightforward, fast-paced manner than I would in Japan.
Therefore, there is definitely a certain cultural expectation that I am aware of as I teach in the U.S. However, I am also aware that
there are unique individual styles and preferences among U.S. studentssome students are outspoken and comfortable in speaking up;
others take more time before speaking up, as they reflect and think more holistically. So this culturalindividual dialectic is always at
work in my intercultural teaching experience here in the U.S.

Privilege-Disadvantage Dialectic
We have stressed the importance of (and the difficulty of understanding) power and power differentials in
intercultural relationships. People may be simultane- ously privileged and disadvantaged, or privileged in some contexts
and disad- vantaged in others.

Static-Dynamic Dialectic
This dialectic suggests that people and relationships are constantly in flux, responding to various personal and
contextual dynamics. Intercultural relation- ships are no different in this regard.

History/PastPresent/Future Dialectic
Rather than trying to understand relationships by examining the relational part- ners alone, it is helpful to consider
the contexts in which relationships occur. Often, this means the historical context. As noted in Chapter 4, cultural groups
have different relationships with each other; some of these relationships are more positive and others more negative.
For example, the historical and con- tinuing hostility between the United States and Cuba means that each cultural group
has fewer opportunities to meet people from the other nation and thus fewer opportunities to develop relationships. One
student, John, gives his views on the pastpresent dialectic:
I dont feel as if people should feel guilty about what their family, ethnic group, or country did in the past, but they should definitely
empathize with those their ancestors have hurt, understand what they did, understand the implications of what they did, and
understand how the past (whether we have ties to it or not) greatly affects the present.